Child sexual assault: concerns raised about convictions, sentences

Child sexual assault: concerns raised about convictions, sentences

Light sentences for people convicted of historical sexual offences against children could “undermine community confidence in the administration of justice”, the chairman of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will tell a conference of leading legal professionals.

In the second part of a presentation about justice for victims, Peter McClellan raised concerns about sentencing historical offenders in accordance with standards at the time of the crime.

Research commissioned by the royal commission found it can take decades for people abused as children to report to authorities. In one case, almost 52 years passed between the offence and the sentencing of the perpetrator.

“In most n jurisdictions, an offender is sentenced with reference to the sentencing standards in existence at the time of the offending. There are a number of concerns with this practice,” Justice McClellan will say in a keynote address to the Modern Prosecutor Conference in Melbourne on Thursday.

He will tell the conference the practice “may result in a sentence that does not align with the contemporary assessment of the criminality of the offence.

“Sentences may be shorter than they would otherwise be applying current standards. Non-custodial sentences may be imposed for offending which, applying current standards, would result in a term of imprisonment.

“This may cause distress for victims and undermine community confidence in the administration of justice. This is especially so in circumstances where previous standards were based on a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the offending and its impact.”

The commission, which will hand down a report into criminal justice in August, is considering the way child sex abuse matters are managed in the legal system.

Data from the NSW District Court shows conviction rates are declining despite the number of matters doubling over a three-year period.

In 2012-13, 73 child sexual assault matters were finalised at a defended hearing in the District Court with a conviction in 56 per cent of cases.

In 2015-16, 142 matters were finalised at a defended hearing with a conviction in 47 per cent of cases.

Justice McClellan will tell the conference that the figures indicate while more complainants are coming forward, acquittal rates “have risen rather than fallen”.

“Given that it appears, at least in NSW, that more victims are now entering the criminal justice system, the challenge for all of us is to ensure that … the response of the criminal justice system achieves justice not only for the accused but also for victims.”

Data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research shows that between 2012-16 the average conviction rate for all offences was 89 per cent. The conviction rate for child sexual assault offences was 60 per cent over the same period, compared with 50 per cent for adult sexual assault, 70 per cent for assault, 73 per cent for robbery and 94 per cent for illicit drugs.

“It confirms the difficulties complainants of sexual assault, both children and adults, continue to face in the criminal justice system,” Justice McClellan will say. Blue Knot Helpline 1300 657 380